In today’s world of eclectic beer styles, brown and black ales are more popular than they have ever been. Brown ales came first and have their roots in England. The style was first referred to in the 1750’s, though the techniques for brewing and malting brown ales were present throughout England centuries before that.
As with all beer styles, the brown ale style wasn’t suddenly invented by a brewer one spring day. It evolved. Brown ale started out as mild ale. These mild ales were very low in alcohol and tolerated rather than adored.
Then the Industrial Revolution hit and factories sprouted up all over the United Kingdom. Many men went to work in the coal mines. Miners embraced the rich, malty taste of the mild ales. It was at this stage that regional differences in the style started to appear. In England’s north, the heart of the coal mining area, the miners savored a stronger alcohol taste, and over time the ales were brewed to higher strengths, often exceeding 6% ABV. There was considerable variation in the alcohol content, but all were lightly hopped and used mostly brown malts. Some of these stronger versions closely resembled in look, but not taste, the brown ales available today.
Eventually, after brown ale reached a certain level of popularity, it split into two categories. The first was the potent strong brown ale. Because it required some aging and there was only limited brewing capacity at the time, brewers met demand by bringing out a milder brown ale that was barely aged, too fresh for any sane modern drinker to touch. In time, brewers cut costs by using less expensive paler malts as a base, alienating old fans. As the need for coal decreased, there was a need for fewer miners who were the traditional tipplers of the beverage. When Manns Brown Ale was introduced in England in 1902 – and still brewed to this very day – brown ales had ceased to become a readily available style.
Brown ale’s fortunes changed for the better in 1924. Newcastle Breweries wanted to launch a product that would meet the public’s increased demand for bottled beers. Their brewer, Lieutenant Colonel James Herbert Porter, knew the brewery required a beer that could withstand the rigors of bottling, and he felt a darker deeper beer would work best. After three years of development, Newcastle Brown Ale was released to great acclaim. Porter borrowed the name from the nearly extinct brown ales of yore. His version was hoppier and slightly lower in alcohol. After Newcastle merged with Scottish Brewers in 1960, Newcastle Brown Ale achieved national distribution and, later, international distribution that did much to spread the brown ale style all over the globe. By 2005, Newcastle Brown Ale was exported to over 40 nations. In the UK, this version of brown ale became known as the new Brown Ale of the North, measuring in at close to 5% ABV.
Because down south in England, another version of brown ale was being brewed. This one was milder, fruitier, and sweeter and a riff off the old miner mild ales of yesteryear, at only 3.5% ABV. The southern recipe, like the northern, used mostly pale malt and a smaller percentage of caramel amounts, differing mainly in the tiny amounts of additional malt types and hops used.
That brown ale had nearly faded away from the public eye, then been brought back again to the public consciousness with not one but two variations made it a natural for new American craft brewers to show off their creativity. In 1986, Pete’s Wicked Ale was released and put brown ales on the map as an American beer type. Pete’s and subsequent American versions incorporated American hops (and in greater amounts), American malts, and other surprises. Rogue Ale adds hazelnuts to one of their brown ales; doughnuts, pretzels, raspberry, and chocolate to another. Brown ales’ already richer profile made them the perfect experimental laboratory for brewers to do anything and everything, something much harder to pull off with a lighter tasting lager.
Black ales became a natural offshoot. When you start varying the malts and the hop type and amounts from the original brown ale recipes, you can get very close to India Pale Ale territory. In fact, American black ales are sometimes referred to as black IPA’s. This is not always the case, because a brewer, in amending a standard brown ale, can choose to darken it to a black color by using more chocolate malts or coffee or what have you, but not significantly increase the hop content, the signature of a standard IPA. A black ale like Brewdog’s Libertine Black Ale is, by Brewdog’s own words, “a 7.2% wickedly decadent black beast of a beer that has been hammered with the epic Simcoe hop.” Hammering an ale with that much hops and with that high an alcohol content makes Libertine a black IPA. Whereas Magic Rock’s 8 Ball black ale is more like the traditional stout with coffee, treacle, and dark berry flavors. It may be more accurate to just call these “black hybrid ales” because they can honestly be a merger of any styles.
At some point, a left wing organization is probably going to think brown and black ales discriminate against some other disenfranchised group. I think it’s only a matter of time before a brewer adds organic butterfly pea leaves to create a blue ale or woodruff syrups for a green one. We really do live in a multi-colored world.